Forum Conversation: OWS wants to smash capitalism?!

December 21, 2011

Occupy Wall Street, occupywallst.org, graphic

There’s nothing like an online forum to give you a snapshot of the world’s psyche. Where else can you spend a few minutes and bare witness to the most profoundly deep-seated ignorance one second, and the most unexpectedly profound insight the next, all from completely invisible strangers? Time spent at an online forum on the subject of your choice can be every bit as illuminating as time spent reading a book on the same subject, simply because of the range of eye-opening possibilities offered by such a democratized, anonymous, unfiltered medium.

I’ve never been one to spend much time at forums, but I’ve been doing more of it since the Occupy movement started. Aside from being a great place to get post ideas, the forum at occupywallst.org, in particular, offers one of the best visual representations available of the challenges for the movement. There’s plenty of brilliance there – the problem is most of it gets buried, overlooked, or simply never read by the movers and shakers of the movement. (Yes, OWS has leaders. Not in the traditional sense, but someone has to organize the marches and upload posts to the homepage.) I’ve said this many times and will probably say it many more times – the toughest task for OWS will be synthesizing the many legitimately good ideas coming from all directions, and narrowing the focus of its incredibly broad grievance enough to make real, actual progress.

As part of my contribution to this process, starting with this post, I will copy over the forum conversations I have had that end up being more than just inane exchanges. I’m doing this for a few reasons. First, to define more precisely the issues and ideology relevant to the Occupy movement, in the hope of educating the many OWS supporters who know that something is wrong, but might not have all the specifics in their philosophical arsenal when asked what OWS is about or why they’re protesting. Second, to do the same thing for OWS detractors, in the hope of providing answers to their questions about the movement’s purpose, assuming of course that their questions are sincere. Third, I would like to simply show what an honest, non-vitriolic, issue-oriented debate can look like. Admittedly, I’m an OWS supporter, but not at the expense of reality. I’ve arrived at the views I currently hold through sober reflection and a wholehearted interest in truth, and that interest still carries the day. A debate to me isn’t about winning an argument, but increasing understanding, whether it’s my own, or the person I’m talking to. If I learn something during the course of our conversation, or better yet, if what I learn is so convincing that it causes me to actually change my view, I don’t see that as failure, and I will gladly broadcast it on this site. Indeed, I think the great shortcoming of our time, and the true cause of a huge majority of the world’s problems, is the tendency of most to prefer to self-identify and stubbornly cling to their views, rather than take a genuine, serious interest in the way things actually are.

So without further ado, here is the first installment, concerning, big surprise, the merits of capitalism and whether or not OWS is a movement worth supporting. The names will be generalized so as to protect forum identities, and I’ll do my best to provide any relevant context. And again, the point of this isn’t who wins or loses the debates, it’s to elucidate and clarify the concepts within those debates. Most of the time, people just stop responding, and I’m not so presumptuous as to assume the reason they stop responding is because they are at a loss for words. It’s a busy world. They probably have better things to do.

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FORUM DWELLER: (Responding to a post on the homepage promoting an upcoming conference call…) “Harrison Schultz is a sociologist and anarchist occupier.” “The Post-Corporate World: Life after Capitalism.” “David will speak to the Federal Reserve as part of the current corrupt and dysfunctional system of financial institutions and discuss an alternative system that would serve the American people.” Tell me again that this movement isn’t aimed toward smashing capitalism and our entire economic system… and I’ll call you a liar to your face. What the hell is going on?!

PRIMITIVE TIMES: For the record, I disagree with the use of the term “anarchist” in this post, mainly because it’s a widely misunderstood term by people who are given to knee jerk reactions such as yourself, and at this stage I think it’s important for OWS to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.

As to your other concerns, this movement is very diverse, so some will undoubtedly think we need to get rid of capitalism entirely, and others will think we just need to make a few tweaks to the current system. Speaking for myself, yes, I think we absolutely need to turn away from capitalism and the kind of thinking that says we can have infinite growth on a planet with finite resources, rapid population growth, and rapidly increasing economic inequality with no consequences (and don’t tell them to just work harder, all money is just someone else’s debt and it’s a physical impossibility for everyone to be rich).

Is turning away from capitalism impossible? It might be, because what’s required is that people actually think seriously about things instead of falling into the conditioned tendencies of just being reactionary and stubbornly defending their views without actually being curious about the true state of things. I’d like to suggest that someone with an independent mind would not just automatically rule out an idea such as turning away from capitalism simply because it’s different or you’ve convinced yourself in the past that capitalism is good. If you have an open mind, really think about it. Contemplate if things now are going well for the majority of the people in the world (I assume you care about that, right?), ask yourself honestly what you think could make things better, and don’t worry if the answer you come up with is something out of the mainstream. I truly wish you the best in your genuine search for the truth about things.

FORUM DWELLER: I have spent a lot of time on this page and I have to admit, yours is the first counter argument I’ve read to anything I’ve said that was presented in a manner that comes across as rational and logical. Thank you for that, first of all.

I do take issue with the term anarchist, especially so in terms of this movement…I have spent a lot of time on this page…and I don’t discount there may be a better way of doing things. And I actually support some socialist ideas. Some. But the vibe I get off the people here is a desire to completely dismantle the entire system…with no thought consequences or plans regarding rebuilding. “Tear it down and whatever will be will be,” is more often the mentality I come across. So. When I see posts like this, I am greatly concerned by the manner in which it will be interpreted.

PRIMITIVE TIMES: Thank you. I also have to say, your response is the only one I’ve read amongst OWS critics that is civil and shows a real desire to understand things, so thanks again.

I think I agree with your concern about dismantling the system. I don’t think any fair-minded person thinks we should just do a complete 180 in 1 day, that’s obviously not possible and would be complete chaos. But there’s nothing wrong with defining the goal of transitioning out of capitalism, and working to achieve it. If you read any of the articles from Yes Magazine or any of Korten’s books, I think you’ll recognize that none of those ideas or Korten himself is in any way extreme. You may disagree with them, but they are earnestly trying to make things better and are well aware of the kind of planning and work it will take to restructure the system.

As for the website and other people in the movement, you’re right. A lot of the posts on this site are a little unhinged and show poor judgment in my opinion, and some people in the movement are more articulate than others, which is of course true of the Tea Party or any other movement. If OWS is going to succeed, it will have to become more disciplined with its focus and messaging in order to attract a wide range of people. But right now it’s still very young and finding its feet. Remember this is a true grassroots movement by everyday people who may or may not always be able to express themselves as effectively as some PR guy in DC. It’s an organic process and no one knows how it’s going to develop.

But the one thing it does have on its side is that it is fundamentally right on the issue (obviously my opinion). Most people in this country can feel in their gut that something is wrong, even if they can’t always put their finger on it, and that’s why OWS resonates with a lot of folks. Trust me, if the human species is still around in 1000 years, capitalism will be long gone. We have to learn to live with each other in cooperation, not competition. That’s really what it boils down to.

FORUM DWELLER: I agree. But I am also solid in my conviction that this movement, as it presents itself today, is nothing I can endorse. There is too much confusion, chaos and the goals and purposes are unclear. I believe the movement’s fragmentation will be its doom. I read post after post on both the main forum and the user forum and most of the folks here don’t even speak my language, let alone speak for me.

I am hopeful this will gel into something with some real substance. And I greatly respect the conversations it has started, but at this time I don’t agree with many of its causes or practices. Even the Oakland Strike…which I was all for after what happened to Scott Olsen…shutting down the port for a day? Who did that hurt? Not the blanketed 1%. No. It hurt the people they mean to represent. The ones who lost pay that day. The destruction of property? Again, those were not multi-billion dollar businesses.

At this time, I simply cannot support this movement. But I continue to play close attention. I continue to interject my opinion and I will continue to be hopeful they will develop a uniform direction, message and cause.

PRIMITIVE TIMES: If you support the idea that we need to move away from capitalism, or more generally, have a system that works for a majority of people rather than a minority, you can support this movement. If you don’t support that idea, don’t support the movement. The fact that it’s chaotic or there are uncouth people here and there doesn’t matter. It’s a movement. Of course it’s going to be chaotic in the beginning. The point of a movement is that people get together, and then gradually organize and become more effective based on the input of its people. Take me for example. I agree with the overall message of OWS. I don’t agree with some of the tactics or people in the movement. So what do I do? I add my input and try to affect it positively, because I agree with the overall message. Not everyone in the civil rights movement believed in nonviolence, and it set the movement back. Fortunately, there were other people in the movement who educated them and showed them that their conduct was detrimental to the goal. The Tea Party? Plenty of them were misinformed and had horribly ignorant signs, but if you agreed with their overall message, you should support them.

The Oakland fiasco was despicable. Those people are hypocrites, claiming to want a better world while at the same time acting like hooligans and destroying property. I believe 99% of the people of Occupy Oakland disagree with that tactic, but to this day they have yet to put out a statement denouncing violence. If the larger occupy movement follows their lead, this will be over very quick.

Shutting down the port is another issue. Yes, in an auxiliary way it affects regular people, but at some point you have to go to the source of the problem. Businesses like McDonald’s hide behind the veil of “creating jobs,” when in reality, it’s paid slavery. Horrible working conditions, substandard wages, and providing a product that is actually bad for society. If everyone working there were to strike, yes, technically they would lose their jobs. But we need to consider the larger question of corporations exploiting people for their sole benefit. Shutting down the port of Oakland? Sure, people may lose a day’s wages. But we’re trying to address the bigger issue of children in Chinese factories working 20 hours a day for a dollar an hour that make the products on those ships, and the people working at those ports who are barely staying afloat regardless of how hard they work. Social change is never neat and tidy with zero unwanted consequences. That’s just the way it is.

FORUM DWELLER: I am not sure I do support the movement’s overall message. Or lack thereof, as the case may be. I can’t say I believe businesses like McDonald’s are as terrible as you claim they are. Can’t say I agree that shutting down the port had as much depth and foresight as you interpret it to. I think you are adding meaning that isn’t there and devising a movement you want to see with a fraction of the facts and a lot of blanks filled in.

I am all for reform. Reform of our current structure. I am not so quick to throw in the towel on a free market society. In the grand scheme, our government is still very, very young. Tweaking and revamping are a must, the whole deal is filthy and corrupt at this moment…

But who in history has had a more successful system?

PRIMITIVE TIMES: Ok, so we disagree about McDonalds. You don’t say why you disagree though, so I can’t respond to anything there. We also disagree about shutting down the ports. I don’t know what kind of depth you think I was adding to it, I was simply saying the intention of the strike, as is the case with every strike in history, was to advocate for improved pay/working conditions. I think that’s fairly obvious. You say we need reform, but what kind? Maybe less government and even freer markets? So let corporations just do whatever they want, pay people even less, get even richer? Whenever people talk about “free markets,” make no mistake, what that really means is “corporate control.” We get caught up on the whole big government vs. big business debate, but that’s an outdated construct. When you have businesses buying and controlling government, the distinction becomes irrelevant.

But really, if you’re for capitalism and individual determination, why should you have any problem with businesses doing whatever the hell they want? Paying employees next to nothing to enable more and more profits. After all, that’s what we value, isn’t it? Ambition, success. If you’re ambitious and cutthroat enough to attain the kind of wealth that allows you to buy influence and actually change policies to make them more favorable to you – that’s fair game, isn’t it? Screw everyone else who isn’t hellbent on world domination. They need to get in the game, compete, survival of the fittest. Never mind that CEOs are completely dependent on them to profit as much as they do. Screw em. This is about free markets and making as much money as you can, so whatever they need to do or whoever they need to step on to do that – none of us should have any problem with that if we really value free markets.

Who in history has had a more successful system? If you’re going purely on GDP, no one. But that’s the problem. Our priorities are mixed up. We’ve become deluded into thinking things like “growth” and employment figures are ends in themselves, rather than the actual happiness and well-being of the population. Look at a country like Bhutan. You may laugh at that, because they’re a primitive and technologically inferior country to us, but by any measure you want to go on, they are a far happier population than us – less disease, less violence, less mental illness, etc., and trust me, none of them are clamoring to get over here. They even have something called the GNH(gross national happiness). Now that doesn’t mean we have to go backwards in order to be happy. We can have a completely technologically advanced society, but replace our focus on growth and profits to a focus on people. I know that’s pie in the sky stuff, but it is possible. You know why? Most people would support it if they knew what it meant. Most people are NOT hellbent on world domination. Most people just want to contribute in a meaningful way to society and take care of their family and friends. That’s it. They don’t need the incentive of insane profits. But our system allows the small minority of people – the ones who care about things like power and influence and are not satisfied with hundreds of millions of dollars – to run the show. The system rewards greed over virtue, so the most greedy among us are able to take control and literally decide the fabric of our lives, make whatever rules they want, control the media, and delude people into thinking this behavior is somehow good for society and should be celebrated as a testament to our “freedom.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way, because there are more normal people than there are of them. We can have all the jobs and technical innovation we have now, but instead have our companies run with the intention of actually improving society. Instead of being scared of “losing jobs” when an advance in technology replaces human labor, we can celebrate it. Shouldn’t we all benefit from technological advances? Shouldn’t that allow us to reduce our workload, rather than cause us to panic about getting laid off? But since everything is about profit, this isn’t the case. Technological advancement benefits only the CEOs, who can then cut jobs/costs and increase their profit margin. But now, I think more people are realizing that we can have a society with all the benefits and good things we currently have, but guided by values that are reflective of MOST people, not this minority that’s in charge now. People are realizing it’s a myth that we need “competition” to somehow spur innovation, and that it’s much more efficient and productive to work together. We may be a long way away from this kind of fundamental change, but at least we are aware and contemplating such things on a wider scale now, and that’s a big step from where we were 6 months ago.

Sorry to go on like this. I used to write for a living and have no problem churning out long essays. I also happen to think conversations like this are important and can hopefully be beneficial to others outside you and me.

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